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December 2005

National Parks Inc.

Like it or not, national parks are officially in the business of business. Will this focus destroy the soul of a national institution - or save it in these lean times?

One effort that’s received a lot of attention in recent years is the Business Plan Initiative, which sends graduate students out to parks to analyze operations and financial needs. The program grew out of a situation much like the one Grand Teton faces today: It was 1996, and Yellowstone’s superintendent decided to close down the park’s Norris Campground and a nearby museum to save $70,000. Visitors were incensed, which led Congress to ask Yellowstone to account for the savings – a task that proved difficult for the park, which couldn’t articulate its finances in accountant-friendly terms.

In response, the NPCA, in conjunction with the NPS, developed the business-plan program to ensure superintendents had the knowledge and data they needed to be in a position of power in tough budget times. The idea was that writing business plans, in addition to hopefully luring talented business and policy students to join the cause, would help parks save money and make a rational case for increased funding from Congress. If a Harvard MBA proves that you’re strapped, maybe it would be harder for a senator to ignore you.

This summer, 30 business-plan consultants, as they’re called, fanned out across the nation. Tim Capozzi, 27, and Dan Cohn, 28, headed to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a 125,000-acre park on the Tennessee-Kentucky border that attracts almost a million visitors per year. Both men are former management consultants turned grad students. Capozzi is earning law and public policy degrees at the University of California, Berkeley; Cohn is getting his MBA at the University of Denver.

The two spent hours hunched over laptops, immersing themselves in an accounting program that tracked every dollar that came into Big South Fork and how it got used. As other young seasonals cleared trails, Capozzi and Cohn pondered how Big South Fork could pull in (and save) more money. They analyzed trail maintenance: How much would it cost to make paths safe again in the wake of a Southern pine beetle infestation? They studied archaeological digs: If we invest more to educate parkgoers, will we save on site preservation? They also wound up spending a lot of time convincing park staff they weren’t the spawn of the devil. “We try to emphasize that we aren’t just pencil pushers from Washington. This isn’t Office Space,” says Capozzi, referring to the 1999 Mike Judge movie satirizing corporate dronedom. “This is figuring out ways this park can do its mission better. This isn’t about eliminating jobs, or any of that unsavory stuff.”

Usually, as in Big South Fork’s case, the work of business-izing national parks involves fairly mundane details. John Kelly, park planner at Acadia National Park, says that when he took part in the Business Plan Initiative in 2001, the visiting students took a “SWAT team approach” and “started at a very basic level. It was, ‘How many people does it take to clean a restroom X number of times, over Y number of days?'” Capozzi and Cohn focused on the size of Big South Fork’s truck fleet, as well as its utility costs. Over at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, their colleagues Alice Bond (environmental management, Yale School of Forestry), Alison Sekikawa (MBA, Dartmouth), and Sindhu Srinath (public administration, Columbia) analyzed whether installing automated fee machines might help the park collect money from visitors during hours when entrance gates aren’t staffed.

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